Mistakes

“I could have built you a fire and told you this story and hoped you gleaned from it some sort of wisdom. Maybe you would have, or maybe, like most men, you would have ignored your father and gone off to make your own mistakes. ~The character Pieter from Sarah Leipciger’s Coming Up For Air (87)

If only it were that easy, that a child or any person should heed the wisdom and advice of an elder, in doing so avoid most or all mistakes, and lead a near-perfect life. For many of us, such advice, usually based on hard-earned experience, goes in one ear and out the other. We do make our own mistakes, we do learn the hard way, and only in retrospect might we appreciate the warnings.

Why do we do that? Sometimes we don’t trust the source of the advice. It might come from a person whose life we don’t envy or whom we don’t fully respect, so we don’t listen. We might think a situation doesn’t or would never apply to us, so we tune it out. Sometimes the advice runs counter to what we want, which might be a person, an object, or an experience. We might be addicted to drama or driven by fears or desires we don’t fully understand. Maybe the person offering the advice seems so perfect that we feel we can never live up to their standards, so why bother trying?

Mostly, though, it’s because it’s our life and we must live it the way we choose, consciously or unconsciously. Mistakes will be made along the way, some big, some small. It is part of being human, of living a full and authentic life, of taking risks, exploring, leaving our comfort zones. It’s how we learn who we are, what we are capable of, how to trust or not trust ourselves.

I have wondered about people that seem never to make mistakes, whose lives seem too perfect. Are they taking any real risks? Playing it too safe? Living in a carefully constructed bubble? Or have they simply gleaned something that the rest of us haven’t?

How do we treat the people we love when they make mistakes? Do we shame and blame them or love them anyway, try to help them learn and do better? What advice and words of wisdom are we offering? Is it welcome? Is it helping? How do we discern what advice to give, who to give it to, how to give it and when? Will they listen?

Are we listening?

“Because these are the sorts of things that build a life: crossing water to another country and wondering about ghosts and suffering the humiliation of being bested by an animal dumber than you and with more time to lose.” ~Pieter (87)

Risk and Vulnerability

vulnerability-quoteWhat is the riskiest thing you’ve ever done? Jump out of an airplane? Travel abroad alone? Leave a job or relationship that wasn’t working? Start a business? Pursue a dream? Something else?

For me, it was to put my uncensored writing out there for others to see – and to criticize. I thought I would be safe when I signed up for a creative nonfiction writing course, with a small group of adults who had a passion for the craft. Our instructor set clear ground rules, one of which was to critique the writing, not the writer. This rule gave me the courage to share my work without censuring myself, for the first time ever.

So imagine my shock when, during a group critique of one of my essays, a classmate said, “I can’t imagine writing that about my [insert very close relation].” A pair of middle-aged women (I was in my early 30s at the time) nodded their heads in agreement as they whispered to each other and sent me disapproving glances. I looked to my instructor to correct them, remind them of the ground rules, but she didn’t. I felt betrayed by my classmates and by her. Worse, I felt like a naughty little girl who had done something very wrong.

After that class, I went back to writing in the closet for years and stuck mostly with fiction. Fiction felt safe because the characters weren’t real people and the stories came from my imagination. For a while, I also wrote feel-good news stories for a local newspaper. Then I started blogging, where I walk a fine line between speaking my uncensored truth and carefully choosing my language so as not to offend others or incite their  wrath. All low-risk writing.

Recently, I was reminded of how vulnerable we are when we put ourselves out there in any way, whether it’s speaking our truth, sharing our art, making decisions others don’t understand or approve of, or bucking society norms and/or traditions to follow our dreams or live more authentically. We open ourselves up to all kinds of judgement and criticism from others, some constructive and well-meaning, some downright mean. Sometimes it is the silence of indifference that hurts the most.

Risk-taking requires courage in the face of fear; it also  requires the willingness to be vulnerable. There is always a chance that we might be harmed, whether emotionally, financially, physically or in some other way.  But if we want to step out of our comfort zones and grow, if we want to pursue goals and dreams, if we want success that goes beyond the ordinary kind, or if we simply want to share our art in the most authentic way possible, we must take risks. That almost always leaves us vulnerable.

Have you ever felt truly vulnerable? I went through a brief period where someone had hurt me deeply, and as a result I felt incredibly vulnerable. It was as if every armor and shield of self-protection I had ever worn was ripped away, leaving me raw and exposed. Instead of fighting the feeling, I gave into it and an odd thing happened; I started to like it.  The softness of it felt light, and it carried a beauty and authenticity I hadn’t experienced before.  I was enveloped in a sense of peace and contentedness. Then after a couple of days, the outer shell started to harden again and the feeling went away, though I never forgot it.

Next time you’re wrestling with whether or not to take a risk, I encourage you to move beyond courage and embrace vulnerability.

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